Taipei, Taiwan: Taiwan`s Vice Foreign Minister resigned Tuesday to take responsibility for his agency`s initial rejection of aid from other governments following Typhoon Morakot, which claimed about 500 lives and caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damage.
Andrew Hsia`s resignation, which still needs to be approved by the Cabinet, came amid rising criticism over the government`s slow response to the Aug. 8-9 storm. The move was linked to the ministry`s delay in requesting foreign aid after the storm hit, said a foreign ministry official on condition of anonymity because he wasn`t authorized to speak to the press.
The ministry initially instructed Taiwanese missions abroad to reject offers of aid but reversed the decision Aug. 13.
Meanwhile, a U.S. relief team backed by heavy-lift helicopters arrived in Taiwan on Monday to help local authorities get aid to the hundreds of people thought to be stranded in mountain villages.
Relying mainly on 70 Taiwanese choppers, local rescuers have already ferried more than 35,000 villagers to safety, many stranded in and around 44 hard-hit mountain communities, cut off from the outside world after roads and bridges were washed away by Morakot`s fury.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Tai Chan-te said more than 200 people were rescued Monday but could not give an estimate of how many still needed aid. Officials said late Sunday that at least 1,000 people were still stranded.
The U.S. team arrived on a MH-53E helicopter that took off from the USS Denver in waters off southern Taiwan to help out with the effort, according to Christopher Kavanagh of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy on the island.
Another MH-53E and an MH-60 arrived on Tuesday, Kavanagh said.
The U.S. has already given $250,000 to Taiwan for relief efforts and delivered relief goods both Sunday and Monday. Taiwan has also accepted foreign aid from other countries including Israel, Australia and Singapore.
Typhoon Morakot dumped more than 80 inches (2 meters) of rain on the island more than a week ago. That spawned flooding and massive landslides that stranded thousands in mountainous southern Taiwan. Among the estimated 500 dead, some 380 were buried in the remote village of Shiao Lin in eastern Kaohsiung county.
On Monday, Taiwan`s military continued its search for victims who perished in the storm. TV images showed soldiers crawling on the ground, smelling for dead bodies buried under mud.
Tai said the army is focusing its operations on air dropping supplies and opening severed roads.
Over the weekend President Ma Ying-jeou apologized for his government`s slow response to the disaster, following widespread criticism of its actions — including from members of his own party.
"Sorry we were late," he told people in southern county of Pingtung on Sunday. "As the president, I will take full responsibility in getting the remaining work done well."
Ma has described Morakot as the worst weather disaster to hit Taiwan in more than 50 years. On Friday he put its agricultural and property damage at more than 50 billion New Taiwan dollars ($1.5 billion).
In addition to the damage it wrought on Taiwan, Morakot also caused 22 fatalities in the Philippines and eight in China.
That figure does not include the 22 seaman China`s official Xinhua News Agency says disappeared when their ship sank off Taiwanese waters on Aug. 8. The seaman were employed by a shipping company in eastern China, Xinhua says. It says a search for them is under way.